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What Is Freedom

Freedom is often thought of as something very simple, such as one's ability to freely act, but that simplicity is clearly not the case when one takes a closer look. For instance, one's ability to freely act doesn’t take into account how the choices were made. It also doesn't take into account how those actions affect others, thus potentially having a coercive effect upon them, restricting their freedom and thus contradicting the claim that freedom is something available equally to everyone. As a result of freedom’s apparent simplicity, many people use the term incorrectly, often without realizing that their conception of freedom is self-contradictory or that it makes it exclusive to them or only to a group of people, to which they often belong. Resolving this matter requires a deeper understanding of what freedom is and what it entails.

Freedom is, first and foremost, a feeling and a state of being. In particular, it is the state of being within which one is fully oneself without constraint. This feeling and state of being is extremely fleeting, as one is always being influenced by one's external environment. In order for the self to be truly free, the self needs to be expressed without constraint, and the environment within which the self exists is always in the process of constraining and shaping the self in its own image. Thus, the state of being free as oneself requires lifelong practice and persistence to express oneself as oneself without numerous environmental constraints such as the social performance expected by one’s culture.

Since freedom is a fleeting state, it is not absolute in nature. One cannot always be free and nobody is ever absolutely free, nor absolutely unfree. Freedom comes in degrees, there is no such thing as absolute freedom. Freedom exists within a continuum, where one at one time can be more unfree while at another time one could be more free. However, a pattern tends to emerge where one is consistently free or one is consistently unfree. Action tends to reinforce itself. One that is often free is more likely to continue being free, and one that is often unfree is more likely to stay unfree. But one can move in either direction over time.

Freedom is complex. In order to understand it better, it may be helpful to break it down into its defining characteristics. Freedom is often characterized in terms of the absence of certain features such as cost, coercion, and constraint. It is also often defined in terms of what it entails, such as the presence of choice, purpose, and awareness.

Cost is often associated with the lack of freedom. When one desires to acquire something that has been commodified and is available to purchase within one's market, one is confronted with a cost. Products in markets are not available for access free of charge. In order to gain access to the product, the product needs to be purchased. The person who desires the product need to exchange currency they possess in exchange for access to the product. Since the individual in question has a finite amount of currency, they have an opportunity cost which needs to be assessed. They have to choose between all the products that they can have access to with the currency they have. In other words, they have to forgo access to some products in favour of others. This is part of the mechanism which allows for the wide distribution of products since there is a finite number of products available in any economy. But it comes at the cost of restraining the freedom of individuals to access products. If the economy is functional, it provides widespread access to everyone. If it is not, a few have access to a lot of products and resources to invest while the vast majority have severely constrained access to the economy. This topic of economic functionality is beyond the scope of this post, but it is an important one when one considers the implications for how much freedom we can all have in society.

Freedom also implies a lack of coercion. Coercion is a specific kind of constraint where one's choice is artificially limited due to some kind of threat imposed on them. The threat can be overt, caused by another's imposition of their will on the one who is being coerced, but it can also be covert, caused by the implication of one's lack of compliance to another's wishes. Thus, coercion involves the encroachment of one's freedom for the benefit of another. In that encroachment, the individual or organization who is coercing is gaining the freedom of another, turning the other from a subject into an object which becomes the extension of their will. The coercing individual or organization thus extends their selves into the bodies of another's, effectively directing their will. This can be done through direct orders or psychological manipulation. Coercion is usually associated with the threat of violence, but it is not at all restricted to such overt threats. Threats can be by implication, such as restricting one's alternatives to the point they can either obey you or suffer the consequences of not obeying you. It can also be done at the level of social structures, restricting the choices available to individuals in society to the point where they have to adhere to the dictates of the structure or individually suffer the consequences of not doing so. Examples of such structures include police states and labour markets.

Another aspect of freedom is the lack of constraint, which can be understood as a more general category. Cost and coercion are two kinds of constraints, but as we saw with coercion, constraints are not always nearly as visible as cost. On the contrary, constraints can be hard to see. The environment constrains us all the time. The environment includes everything around us but also within us. Our own bodies constrain what is possible and, with the external environment, it limits our freedom. We are not free to fly both because the environment makes it impossible due to the presence of gravity but also because our bodies are not equipped to enable us to fly. Thus, our freedom is limited both by the features of our environment and the features of our bodies. Constraints can also be mental. One is constrained in their actions by their environmental awareness but also by their knowledge and mental abilities. One who is more skilled at talking and social interaction than others naturally have more freedom and power than those who don't have those skills. Those skills are also shaped by abilities we are born with or are not born with. One could, for instance, be born with a neurological makeup that makes it harder for them to communicate, while others are born with the converse advantage. Thus, our genetic makeup plays a significant role in shaping the person we become. Our families also play a significant role, as their actions shape our beliefs, values, and preferences based on what our families expose us to. A lot of the characteristics that we attribute to choice are in fact largely shaped by our life experiences, circumstances, biology, and environment. Constraints play a significant role in shaping us and thus restricting our freedom.

Freedom implies the presence of alternatives from which one can choose a course of action. It is, however, a necessary feature of choice that the number of choices available to us is always limited. When choices are too limited, they are not meaningful “choices”. When you do something because you have no choice other than doing that, you are not doing that freely. You are doing it because, given the constraints you find yourself with, the alternative is the least worse and least undesirable of all the alternatives available to you. These are often referred to as “Hobson’s choices”, choices which only offer one alternative because the alternative is strongly undesirable. For instance, working full time at a job that barely pays you enough to afford food and shelter, because the only alternative is hunger and homelessness. When alternatives are restricted, especially when they are artificially restricted by the structure and rules of the systems you live under, then you are constrained and you have no real choice. Our social position largely shapes the choices that are available to us. We are born within the social position of our families. This social position shapes the range of experiences that will be available to us through most if not all of our lives. It often takes generations of work for a family to improve their social position, and those who achieved a favourable social position centuries ago are likely to remain in a favourable social position to this day.[1] The experiences that are available to us constrain us but also give us some choices. These choices may include, for example, which prestigious university to go to, or whether to specialize in drug trafficking or prostitution. Choices can shape us, and we can shape ourselves through our choices, but the alternatives that are available to us are limited and shaped by factors beyond our control.

When one makes a choice, it is not just the selection of one alternative over another but also the intentional direction of one individual towards a future they imagine and desire. Their imagination and desire are constrained by factors we previously discussed, but it does have a direction which the individual intends to take. Somewhere, within a sea of constraints lies an anomaly, something which cannot be explained by the push and pull of the universe on the infinitesimal self. Through this intention, the self is expressed and claims its freedom to exist within a universe of its own making, unperturbed by the dark waves of the void which surrounds it. Within that intention, a seed of future possibilities can germinate and change the universe beyond the self. That intention is the freedom of the self put into action. Naturally, if one can be significantly more free than another, then the one who is more free has more intention than another and can shape their destiny more than another. But that power to shape one's destiny doesn't start at their intention and ability to shape it but on their awareness of themselves and their environment.

Awareness is the key to freedom. If one is largely influenced by one's environment, then it naturally follows that in order not to be further influenced by their environment, to break free, to a certain extent, from the constraints of their environment, then one must be able to distinguish how their environment influences them so that they can properly discern the boundary between themselves and their environment. This boundary is faint, fluid, and difficult to discern. It enables one to distinguish themselves from their environment and thus separate one's intention from one's environmental influences. Inevitably, one may still be influenced by one's environment, but this level of awareness enables one to embrace and accept some of those influences while rejecting others. Depending on one's environment, that can take a significant level of practice, skill, and determination.

As it is evident from the discussion above, freedom is a lot more complex than simply the ability of one to do whatever one pleases without constraint. One's freedom can infringe on another's, so we can't be completely free to do whatever we want regardless of how other people are affected. But on a deeper level, even the very structure of our bodies constrains what we are able to do. It gives us the freedom to do certain things but not others. We are enabled by our bodies to crawl and to walk, but not to fly. The structure of our bodies enables us to do certain things while constraining us from doing others. All structures, whether natural or artificial, enable some interactions while constraining others. There can be no structure without a combination of affordances and constraints. The shape of the river enables the flow of the water, but it also constrains the flow of the water to the river. There can be no structure and no existence without certain limitations. Thus, there is no such thing as infinite freedom. Freedom is always constrained by both natural and artificial factors. Therefore, we need to carefully discern the natural constraints that we cannot change from the artificial ones that we can. We then need to determine how to maximize freedom for everyone. One can argue that freedom is the primary objective of politics and that all political values need to be designed to fulfill and preserve that objective. Understanding freedom is thus essential for designing the structure of a political economy that is capable of maximizing freedom for all.

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